Where are the Indian workers suffering from radioactive radiation?
France's Nuclear Safety Authority has alerted the Indian authorities about the radioactive buttons. It said, the lift buttons contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. Radiological safety division of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is investigating the concerns raised by France's Nuclear Safety Authority. The original complain was from Otis firm, a French subsidiary of the US company. The factory belonging to Mafelec company, which delivers the buttons to Otis noticed in early October. Nuclear Safety Authority classed the incident at a factory of the Mafelec firm in the east-central town of Chimilin at level two on the seven-level International Nuclear Event Scale. It said that of 30 workers exposed, 20 had been exposed to doses of between one mSv (milli-Sievert) and three mSv. The maximum permitted dose for workers in the non-nuclear sector is one mSv.
Otis Elevator Company. lifts in France had been traced to a foundry in Maharashtra. There is a foundry near Khopoli on the way to Pune from Mumbai called Vipras, which melted this scrap. French firm Mafelec delivered thousands of lift buttons to Otis. Otis has said it is now in the process of removing the buttons, after the Nuclear Safety Authority announced on Tuesday that 20 workers who handled the lift buttons had been exposed to excessive levels of radiation. The French nuclear safety agency said the buttons contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60.
The components used by Mafelec were supplied by two Indian firms—Bunts and Laxmi Electronics—which purchase inputs from SKM Steels Ltd and and Pradeep Metals. SKM Steels, in turn, worked with foundry Vipras Casting. In this case Vipras was provided scrap by SKM Steels to convert into bars. It is not mandatory for Indian foundries to install radiation detectors to check scrap.
Even Sweden said that steel items imported from India showing faint traces of radioactivity were found. Swedish Radiation Safety Authority was aware of it too. It was the Dutch customs which discovered that a shipment of industrial flanges from India to Sweden showed traces of Cobalt 60. This led to the discovery that a similar shipment had been sent several weeks earlier from India and delivered to three companies at four sites in Sweden.
Skoeld said SSM had contacted France over the Swedish discovery.
"It seemed important to contact France to inform them of the contaminated steel flanges which also came from India," he said.
The Hazardous Waste (Management, Handling and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2008 is a declaration to the hazardous waste traders that the Indian Government offers no resistance to transboundary movement of hazardous and radioactive materials. It does not matter if it comes without prior decontamination in the country of export in manifest contempt of Supreme Court's directions in its order dated 14 October, 2003 in Writ Petition (Civil) 657 of 1995.
Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 deals with the radioactive waste. There framers of both the Rules were oblivious to a situation where hazardous waste (recyclable metal scrap, according to Environment Ministry) and the products made out of it would be contaminated with radioactive materials.
Hazardous Waste Rules lays down the procedure for import of hazardous waste and how it would facilitate the same by providing administrative mechanism to ensure that even Port and Customs authorities ensure compliance when hazardous waste is imported by paying lip service seeking "safe handling". After creating the loophole it says, Custom authorities would take samples as per Customs Act 1962 prior to clearing the assignments. Technical Review Committee of MoEF as noted in the Rules should now show its sense of purpose by finding out where did the radioactive materials come from in the lift buttons made of scrap steel.
The case illustrates how even the new Rules remain full of loopholes. One would have been surprised, had it not been so because the Ministry defines hazardous waste as recyclable metal...and then asks agencies Customs and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to probe the consequences of the flawed Rules. The Hazardous Waste Rules do not apply to radioactive waste as covered under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 (33 of 1962)and rules made thereunder. Consequently, Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 apply to it.
But neither the Hazardous Waste Rules nor the Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules seem to have foreseen a situation where metal scrap products are found to be contaminated with radioactive materials although while providing the definition, the Radioactive waste Rules, it says, “radioactive waste” means any waste material containing radionuclides in quantities or concentrations as prescribed by the competent authority by notification in the official gazette".
Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes Rules also provides for a “Radiological Safety Officer” who can advise the employer regarding the safe handling and disposal of radioactive wastes and on the steps necessary to ensure that the operational limits are not exceeded; to instruct the radiation workers engaged in waste disposal on the hazards of radiation and on suitable safety measures and work practices aimed at minimising exposures to radiation and contamination, and to ensure that adequate radiation surveillance is provided for all radiation workers and the environment.
Neither Environment Ministry, Labour Ministry nor the Atomic Energy Ministry provides for Radiological Safety Officer in the scarp metal yards. Radiological Safety Officer has to carry out such tests on conditioned radioactive wastes, as specified by the competent authority;to ensure that all buildings, laboratories and plants wherein radioactive wastes will be or are likely to be handled/produced, conditioned or stored or discharged from, are designed to provide adequate safety for safe handling and disposal of radioactive waste. He has to help investigate and initiate prompt and suitable remedial measures in respect of any situation that could lead to radiation hazards; and ...to ensure that the provisions of the Radiation Protection Rules, 1971 are followed properly.
In France, the 20 workers who suffered the radioactive radiation has been found and are being treated (if there is a treatment), our Environment Ministry, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Labour Ministry must now trace the Indian workers who suffered due to radiation while working with the metal scrap (from the scrap yard, re-rolling mills to the lift steel button manufacturing) that was contaminated with radioactive material. The failure of the Ministries concerned is too stark to remain unnoticed. There is an urgent need to rewrite the present Rules that is more concerned about human health than hazardous waste trade. Likes of R K Vaish who drafted the Rules must be made accountable. The issue must be dealt with at a much higher level than is case now. There is no quick fix solution.
As a knee jerk reaction, the government is putting in place radiation monitors at ports to check cargo. Although AERB has just about 200 people, it is also a fact that it is an act of grave omission on the part of Environment Ministry and its loophole ridden Rules that allow import of hazardous wastes in the name of recycling. It is also a result of an exercise in linguistic corruption while drafting the Rules that redefines hazardous waste as a recyclable metal scarp.
The Prime Minister who also holds the Environment Ministry port folio and is in charge of the Department of Atomic Energy must acknowledge this serious lapse and constitute a High Power Expert Committee to investigate metal scrap unit, foundry and every yard of the ship-breaking industry in order to trace the workers and communities who have been exposed to radioactive radiation. It is high time the government revised its existing Hazardous Waste and Radioactive Waste Rules.
In such a situation, is buying radioactive monitors as has been suggested by the AERB sufficient?
Contaminated metals in France and Sweden
24 October 2008
Another version of this story incorrectly stated that the maximum regulatory dose rate for the public and nuclear industry workers is 1 mSv per hour. In fact, the maximum dose in France is 1mSv per year for the public and 20 mSv per year for nuclear workers.
Buttons produced at a factory in France for elevator manufacturer Otis have been found to be radioactive as have metal components imported into Sweden. The source of the radiation has been traced back to a foundry in India.
The manufacturer of the buttons, Mafelec, was alerted by US customer Otis of the presence of radiation in a consignment of buttons it had received. Mafelec informed the French Nuclear Safety Authority (Autorité De Sûreté Nucléaire, ASN) on 7 October.
The ASN took radiation measurements at Mafelec's plant in Chimilin in the Isère region of France. Abnormal levels of some 0.02 mSv per hour were discovered near several packages of metal discs which form the base of the lift buttons. In addition, the ASN found a dose of 0.05 mSv per hour at one of the workstations at the Chimilin plant. The regulatory maximum dose in France for the public is 1 mSv per year, while the maximum for nuclear workers is 20 mSv per year.
The ASN initially gave the incident a provisional classification of Level 1 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). However, this was later changed to Level 2 when it was found that more than ten Mafelec employees had received doses exceeding the maximum regulatory level.
The ASN believes that the source of the radiation was likely to be cobalt-60 in the metal discs supplied from India. An inspection by the ASN on 8 October found that consignments of contaminated discs began to be delivered to Mafelec on 21 August. The ASN also determined that a total of some 30 Mafelec employees had been exposed to the radiation, of which about 20 had been exposed to doses ranging from 1 mSv to about 3 mSv.
Cobalt-60 is a corrosion product from nuclear reactor vessels and is mainly used in certain medical diagnosis and treatment equipment.
An investigation by the ASN in collaboration with the Directorate of Civil Aviation found that a consignment of contaminated lift buttons was sent in September from Roissy airport in France to the USA. On its arrival to the USA, a radiation detector indicated that two of the packages were contaminated. Although the two packages were then placed in a controlled area, the authorities do not appear to have been informed.
The ASN has informed the prosecutor of several offences committed by Mafelec, including some under the Public Health Act.
Meanwhile, Swedish officials have discovered traces of radioactivity on steel parts also imported from India. The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) said that the levels of cobalt-60 in the steel parts were considered harmless and the components were not recalled.
SSM spokesman Mattias Sköld told the AFP news agency, "Dutch customs discovered that a shipment of industrial flanges from India to Sweden showed traces of cobalt-60." That led to the discovery that a similar shipment had been sent several weeks earlier from India and delivered to three undisclosed companies in the oil and heating sector at four sites in Sweden.
Sköld added, "Inspections were carried out and it was found that the level found in these products was very low and wasn't dangerous." He noted that SSM had contacted ASN over the Swedish discovery.
India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which had been contacted by the ASN, said that the contamination had been traced back to the Vipras Castings foundry. Satya Pal Agarwal, head of AERB's radiological safety division, told AFP that the components used by Mafelec were supplied by two Indian companies - Bunts and Laxmi Electronics - which purchase inputs from SKM Steels, which in turn worked with the foundry.
Agarwal said that the AERB was still investigating the source of the contaminated scrap metal that had been melted down to produce the steel used in the parts. One possible source of cobalt-60 could be from scrapped hospital equipment used for radiotherapy treatment, which became mixed with other metals. Recycling facilities routinely check shipments of metals for radiation before melting them down but in this case, the practise appears to have failed.
World Nuclear News